Challenging the political establishment

Published: July 11, 2018
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

Besides the familiar, and much, controversial ‘establishment’ — which means primarily the military or security establishment — is the political establishment, comprising the PPP, the PML-N and their allies among the regionalist parties. You may also add to this list the JUI that has been part of governments in every democratic dispensation at the Centre or at least in some province. The political establishment represents powerful political families of Pakistan. It has strong roots in the electoral constituencies on account of land, shrine, biradari or tribe. This is the social base of political elite class of Pakistan. The industrialists, like the Sharif, and businessmen have joined the powerful elite club through the agency of military regimes.

There are three other factors that have historically added to the power and influence of the political establishment. First, it is the popular representation that gives it legitimacy to be members of the assemblies, cabinets and public office holders in the district governments. Getting power through popular vote gives the elite class constitutional authority to rule without accountability. It is a matter of common observance in all post-colonial states — where ruling classes took roots during the colonial periods — that the challenge to ruling classes has come only from within the ruling class. Practically, the political contest for getting popular mandate remains within the powerful political families.

The second factor that adds to the power of the political club is political patronage. It is true that no democracy can function effectively without political patronage, but it is, and what it is not raises many controversies about its being a legitimate tool of politics. Patronage in Pakistan though ‘grants for developments’, monies doled out to members of the national and provincial assemblies, is nothing more assisting them financially at public expense to get elected in the next elections. The members of the established political class take credit for bringing development projects, which they execute through their favourite contractors. It is common knowledge that the members of the assemblies take a certain percentage as ‘commission’ from contractors. Trillions of rupees have been given away since 1988. The ruling elite has grown fabulously rich through commissions, contracts, and questionable deals with national and foreign companies.

The third reason for the power of the political establishment is systematic, vast-scale corruption. Pakistan stands 117 among 180 countries on the international corruption ranking. The estimated amount of Pakistanis holding dollar wealth abroad is two hundred billion. It couldn’t happen without ruining the legal, bureaucratic and accountability systems. The looted monies are laundered by every means possible and stashed away in foreign banks, offshore companies, and real estate. The corruption, widespread as it is, has given a bad name to democracy and the country.

Now the elite class has sprung other players in the finance, industry and real estate sectors, as dependent allies and financiers give invisible support through manipulation of the media, making massive funds available to buy votes and members of the assemblies to form majorities.

Who will or can challenge the power of the political establishment. There is no social movement directed at the ruling class and its corruption. The institutions have been rendered absolutely weak, almost dysfunctional. The recent assertive role of the apex judiciary, the National Accountability Bureau and more recently of the Federal Investigation Agency in reviving, investigating and unearthing cases of corruption by the elite families and their functionaries are signs of hope.

But this is a not a big challenge, from institutions, that the political class has weakened in the past, and can do the same in the future. This is actually a challenge the people must offer when deciding who to vote for.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2018.

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